Bridging the Generation Gap in Your Body Shop - BodyShop Business

Bridging the Generation Gap in Your Body Shop

Young techs and old techs can sometimes seem a world apart. But there are ways you can relate to them and motivate them and make everyone, whether Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers or Gen Y-ers, feel valued.

Let me begin by stating the obvious: Managing a collision center is hard work – harder than I ever imagined before I had my first opportunity to do so back in 1996.

The fact is there are a lot of variables that are beyond our control. For example, we have customers who are unhappy with their circumstances, insurance adjusters or DRP facilitators who are under pressure to make the right assessments for their claims managers, and employees who are sometimes unpredictable.

I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention the other obvious variable we can do nothing about: the fact that the business of repairing vehicles is an inexact science. With the newest car designs, technicians are expected to be part fabricators, part welders, part electricians, part mechanics and part artists. We need to take control of what we can and not make things harder for ourselves.  

I don’t think repairing cars or managing body shops will ever be easy jobs. I think that’s why the majority of us got into this: for a challenge. Trying to control the chaos of a collision center can be an adrenaline rush. And it can be incredibly rewarding to help someone who has been involved in a car accident through a difficult time.   

Personality Identification

One thing we can control is how we deal with our employees. As with dealing with most human beings in our lives, we need to first identify their personalities and how we can relate to them. We may not realize it, but we do this “personality identification” every time we talk with a customer, negotiate with an insurance company or meet with a dealership owner. However, we need to recognize that we also do it on a daily basis when dealing with our employees.  

Most shops have a good mix of younger and older employees. No matter what their age, we need to get 100 percent effort out of each of them – whether they be a receptionist, a painter, a detailer or a body technician – if we’re going to be successful.  

These people come from all different walks of life. They’ve all had unique experiences that have made them who they are today. It’s our responsibility as managers and leaders to discover what motivates each individual so we can connect with them.

In this article, I’m going to explore the differences between the more experienced technician (journeyman) and the younger technician (apprentice) and how we as managers can relate to them and motivate them. Also, how we can make them feel valued so they thrive in their ever-important roles within the industry.

Journeyman vs. Apprentice

The journeyman and the apprentice are different from one another in many ways, not the least of which is that they come from different generations. I think it’s best if we relate to the journeyman on a “consultant” level.

I was generally younger than most of the technicians at the body shops I managed. I could have drawn a line in the sand and said, “We’re going to do this my way because I’m the manager,” but that would have caused division within the shop and led to less productivity as a result.

If we become defensive when questioned by more experienced technicians, we risk losing our credibility. We also risk being perceived as immature and unprofessional. No one wants that. So, as a solution, I chose to “consult” with the journeymen in my shop about the question or issue at hand and lead them to the decision I needed. I would ask questions such as:

• “How was this situation resolved the last time you dealt with it?”
• “From your experience, what do you think?”
• “If this were your son or daughter’s vehicle, what would you do?”

It’s All in the Presentation

It’s also a good idea to let these more experienced techs be vocal and ask for their opinions in internal meetings and/or training exercises. Show that you’re willing to listen to them and that you respect their knowledge and experience. Ask them to be mentors to your less experienced techs – this is a great way to create camaraderie among your team. It’s also a bold statement that says you place importance on continued learning/ training.

Not all these grizzled veterans are receptive to ongoing training. They may swear by a technique they’ve used for the last 25 years that has served them well, but it may not be the best or even the correct way to repair today’s vehicles. So if a more experienced tech acknowledges the need to “change with the times,” it speaks volumes to the rest of the shop, and most will follow his or her lead.

The Apprentice

On the other side of this issue, I feel we should be supportive of and encourage our younger technicians. If we intend to be in business for awhile, we must look at them as our future.

We need to acknowledge the things that are important to them, taking into consideration that they’re tech savvy and accustomed to multi-tasking. We need to provide an environment in which they feel comfortable. It’s also necessary to help them establish a routine and make them part of a team to hold their attention.

We may need to say, “I know you haven’t done this before but I have no doubt you can handle it,” or “We’re a team, so don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need anything.”

It seems that few young techs are comfortable repairing a panel that has extensive damage. Sometimes it’s questionable whether it should be repaired or replaced. I’m not going to get into the repair vs. replace debate but will only say that, from my experience, it seems the greenhorns are much more comfortable hanging new panels. Whether the reason for this comes from their experience and comfort level with straightening badly damaged panels or the way they were taught to repair vehicles, we should take note of this and let them do what they’re comfortable with! The bottom line is that younger techs handle the task of repairing vehicles differently than journeymen – but both bring important perspectives to the business of collision repair.

Mentor Power

The power of mentoring should never be underestimated. I would guess that we’ve all know a person who was instrumental in shaping us in the early stages of our careers. I’ve had several people who helped me find my way and break into this industry. Mentoring can help with the exploration of skills and thought processes that will assist the apprentice. It might be helpful to establish teams or partner younger technicians with more experienced techs after identifying personalities that would complement each other.  


Obviously, there are exceptions to every rule. At your shop, you may know a journeyman who doesn’t need or want the things we’ve talked about. Or you may work with a younger tech who is not as tech savvy as his or her counterparts. However, I do think the wants and desires we’ve discussed are accurate for the majority of the employees we’re going to deal with.

In closing, I would like to express my excitement at what’s happening in the collision repair industry. Having been part of every facet of this industry for the past 20 years, it’s exhilarating to see the new focus on “lean” along with the educational opportunities now available to us. If all of us – owners, managers, journeymen and apprentices alike – can be open-minded to new repair techniques and new technology, then we can position ourselves where we need to be to keep moving the collision repair industry in the right direction. I believe technicians, regardless of age and experience, who see value in I-CAR classes, ASE certification and training from paint manufacturers will continue to prosper in this fast-paced, ever-changing business.

Defining the Generations

From various sources, it seems the general consensus is that there are three generational groupings in today’s workforce:

The Baby Boomers. Born during the post-World War II boom, roughly between 1946 to 1960. There were 76 million American babies born in this timeframe, creating an expansive need for education and training.

Characteristics of this group include higher rates of participation in advanced education and training, nearly perfect attendance, as well as an assumption of lifelong prosperity and entitlement. These workers have had the tendency to “work hard and play hard,” while remaining loyal to employers for long periods of time with an eye toward retirement from that employer some day.

Generation X. Born between 1961 and 1981, this group represents a blending of the Baby Boomer methodical classroom training and the advent of technology (computers, video games and the Internet). The changing business and educational world demanded more flexible thinking and a dynamic workforce than ever before, transitioning from “paper-driven” work flow and personal communication tools to newer and faster processes and throughput.

Characteristics of this group include the expressed desire to succeed, the willingness to cautiously try new jobs and tasks, and the flexibility to adapt to new situations with a grounded foundation in the “way we used to do it.” Gen X-ers are often placed in the role of mediator between the Baby Boomers and Generation Y members based on their own experience and understanding of both perspectives.

Generation Y. Also know as the Millenials, the members of this group were born between 1981 and 2001. This group hasn’t known a world without advanced technology. They’ve grown up with knowledge of and experience with computers, iPods and cell phones.  

Characteristics of this group include an expectation of quick advancement in the workplace, the need for rapid responses to inquiries and concerns, less patience, a high focus on execution, the demand for immediate and easy-to-use training and education, a possession of greater entrepreneurial thinking, and a lower expectation of usage of interpersonal communication (more emphasis on e-mail and instant messaging than in-person or phone calls).
So how does a manager blend all of the talents of these diverse groups of employees into a cohesive team in the workplace, focusing on the organization’s success? To answer that question, the manager must assume that members of each group are critical to the company’s success, and that when these individuals are positioned effectively, they’ll grow and succeed on their own merits.  

The manager should then focus on what each member brings to the table, not only in pure on-the-job skills but also their respective “ingredients” or individual make-up. These ingredients can include the employee’s generational grouping, demographics, attitude, experience and his or her specific work needs (including the importance he or she places on money, an important title, employee benefits, professional growth, etc.) By understanding and focusing on each employee within the context of the organizational structure, the manager creates a staffing game plan for success.  

Typically, the Baby Boomers provide the foundation of the organization through their professional experience, loyalty and ability to mentor others. Gen X-ers provide the bridge, understanding the tasks needed to be done and providing effective communication between all stakeholders. Finally, Gen Y-ers represent the future of the organization, empowered with quick learning skills, fueled by the initiative to grow and succeed, and focused on “what’s next.” They’re the perfect candidates for succession planning and mentor programs.

— Daren Fristoe, The Fristoe Group

10 Differences Between Generation X and Generation Y Employees

Recruitment is an ever-changing landscape, and with demographics continually changing it makes for some interesting recruiting strategies going forward. The early Baby Boomers (defined as being born between 1946 to 1960) are now starting to retire, and as recruiters we are now having to put more of a focus on Generation X (defined as being born between 1961 to 1981) and Generation Y (defined as being born between 1981 and 2001). But to recruit and retain people from these two generations, we surely need to understand what makes them tick in a working environment. Krista Third of Tamm Communications has noted 10 different workplace differences between the X and Y generations that we should all take note of:

1. Preferred style of leadership
• X – only competent leaders will do
• Y – collaboration with management is expected

2. Value of Experience
• X – don’t tell me where you have been, show me what you know
• Y – experience is irrelevant, as the world is changing so fast

3. Autonomy
• X – give them direction, and then leave them to it
• Y – questions, questions, questions

4. Feedback
• X – expect regular feedback
• Y – need constant and immediate feedback

5. Rewards
• X – freedom is the ultimate reward
• Y – money talks

6. Training
• X – want to continually learn, if they don’t they’ll leave
• Y – still in an exam-driven mentality

7. Work Hours
• X – do their work and go home
• Y – will work as long as needed…or until they get bored

8. Work Life Balance
• X – they want to enjoy life to the fullest, while they’re young enough to do so
• Y – their lives are busy – they need a lot of “me” time

9. Loyalty
• X – they’re committed as everyone else working there
• Y – already working out their exit strategy

10. Meaning of Money
• X – it gives freedom and independence
• Y – just something that allows them to maintain their lifestyle


Matt Heidick has been in the collision repair industry for almost 20 years, serving as a painter, shop manager, insurance adjuster and currently as a physical damage appraiser for State Auto Insurance. He can be reached at (515) 210-0686 or [email protected].

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